Georgia’s Election Law, and Why Turnout Isn’t Easy to Turn Off

One simple answer is that convenience isn’t as important as often assumed. Almost everyone who cares enough to vote will brave the inconveniences of in-person voting to do so, whether that’s because the inconveniences aren’t really so great, or because they care enough to suffer them.

This supposes a certain reasonable level of convenience, of course: Six-hour lines would change the calculation for many voters. And indeed, long lines do affect turnout. It also supposes a certain level of interest. Someone might think: There’s no way I’m waiting a half-hour in line to vote for dogcatcher. Similarly, the importance of a convenient voting option probably grows as the significance of a race decreases.

The implication, though, is that nearly every person will manage to vote if sufficiently convenient options are available, even if the most preferred option doesn’t exist. That makes the Georgia election law’s effort to curb long lines potentially quite significant. Not only might it mitigate the already limited effect of restricting mail voting, but it might even outweigh it.

Another reason is that convenience voting may not be as convenient for lower-turnout voters, who essentially decide overall turnout. Low-turnout voters probably aren’t thinking about how they’ll vote a month ahead of the election, when they’ll need to apply for an absentee ballot. Someone thinking about this is probably a high-turnout voter. Low-turnout voters might not even know until Election Day whom they’ll support. And that makes them less likely to take advantage of advance voting options like no-excuse early voting, which requires them to think about the election early and often: to submit an application, fill out a ballot and return it.

As a result, convenience voting methods tend to reinforce the socioeconomic biases favoring high-turnout voters. The methods ensure that every high-interest voter has many opportunities to vote, without doing quite as much to draw less engaged voters to the polls.

A final reason is that voting restrictions may backfire by angering and energizing Democratic voters. This law’s restrictions on handing out water in line, for instance, may do more to mobilize Democrats than to stop them from voting. One recent study even theorized that the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back elements of the Voting Rights Act didn’t reduce Black turnout because subsequent efforts to restrict voting were swiftly countered by efforts to mobilize Black voters.

That doesn’t mean the Georgia law or other so-called voter suppression laws are without consequence. Many make voting more difficult, enough to intimidate or discourage some voters. Many outright disenfranchise voters, even if only in small numbers. Perhaps the disenfranchisement of even a single voter merits outrage and opposition, especially if the law is passed on dubious or even fabricated grounds, and with Jim Crow mass disenfranchisement as a historical backdrop.

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